The humble does NOT cancel out the grand. Nor vice versa. Both are needed for each to be complete. See my more extensive explanation HERE.
In this vein, I found this article in the present print issue of The Catholic Herald in the UK to be spot on. (Subscribe to the online print edition of the entire weekly paper HERE. It’s worth your time.)
The writer is the distinguished Catholic composer James MacMillan.
A ‘poor Church’ doesn’t have to have poor music
James MacMillan says chant is the perfect musical expression of Pope Francis’s vision of humility
The new papacy of Francis has brought great joy and renewal to the Church and a huge wave of good will from non-Catholics. What will this new Pope bring to our sacred liturgies, which are the beating heart of the Church’s philosophy of love?
Baroness Warsi, the Minister for Faith and Communities, attended the papal inauguration Mass in Rome and spoke of the way that Pope Francis’s simplicity resonates with people and singled out “his concept of humility, simplicity and going back to values”.
What does a “poor and simple Church” need in its divine praises? Is there humility in the Americanised, over-the-top, sub-Broadway pop music, dripping with sentimentality, that now infests so much of our liturgy? [No.] Is there simplicity in the here-am-I-Lord egotism of so many of our dreadful modern hymns? [No.] How does the upholstered, fatuous and banal secularity of so much of Catholic contemporary “praise music” succeed in “going back to values”? [It doesn’t.]
The dawning of a more austere period in the Church’s mission requires liturgical music of a more austere and simple design: a music that humbly deflects attention from “the music ministry”, a music that is based in Catholic heritage and values, and a music that sounds both Catholic and sacred. The good news is that we have this already, and it is the music that Pope Benedict has been urging us to rediscover over the last decade: chant. [Singing Francis Through Benedict.]
Music for a sacred ritual needs to project sacredness. In the liturgy “sacred” means “the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful”. Gregorian chant gives an elevated tone of voice to the texts of our sacred praises, conveying the special character of the words and of the specific holy nature of what is being enacted and undertaken.
The chanting of the holy texts raises them up from the mundane and presents them “as on a platter of gold”, in the words of the Jesuit liturgist Fr Josef Jungmann. Gregorian chant is unlike anything from the everyday world but conveys the clear impression that there is something uniquely holy in the actions of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is holy. [As I picked up from the late Msgr. Schuler, sacred music must be sacred and it must be art. It must be artistically written and performed, but it must have both a sacred text and a sacred idiom. Gregorian chant is perfect in those criteria.]
Gregorian chant is universal as it is supra-national and thus accessible to those of any and every culture equally. It rises above those musics which are either associated only with localised cultural experience, on the one hand, and operates separately from those other musics which are associated with high, artistic, classical derivation and aspiration, on the other. Therefore, it is essentially anti-elitist and simultaneously pure. Gregorian chant is for all.
The beauty of music is a crucial element in the “edification and sanctification of the faithful”. Beauty is the glue which binds together Truth and Goodness. To paraphrase the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, truth does not persuade and goodness does not compel. The general function of music in the liturgy is to draw together a diverse succession of actions into a coherent whole. [Not just draw them together, but draw them together in prayer raised to God. Enough of “Gather Us In”!] That is what makes Gregorian chant beautiful.
The Gregorian sound, and the practice of chanting, whether by specialist or non-specialist, gives the most perfect context for the hearing of the words of the Sacred Scripture. It provides an elevated tone of voice that takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred.
It provides a goodness of form, which is in itself beautiful, which in turn adds a sense of delight to prayer. It takes our divine praises into the realm of the transcendent and the eternal, and it is the music’s sacred character which enables this.
There is a melodic and rhythmic freedom in chant which is hard to find in any other music. Chant not only enhances the text, but it also breaks free from the restraints of metre. It is the antithesis of rock and pop with its incessant and insistently mind-numbing beat. It embodies the ethereal and spiritual aspects of the liturgy. It is the freest form of music.
The Church would stop being the Church without its liturgy. The liturgy is the pinnacle and summit of our entire Christian life. It has to be of our highest and best, whatever the circumstances. Our liturgical music has to be more than mere utility music. Before he was Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said: “A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless … for her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of ‘glory’, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level. She must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”
He went on to say: “The other arts, architecture, painting, vestments, and the arts of movement each contribute to and support the beauty of the liturgy, but still the art of music is greater even than that of any other art, because it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and differentiating the various parts in character, motion, and importance.”
The new papacy is a welcome opportunity for us to renew and revitalise our attempts at maintaining and continuing the sacred dimension of our liturgical celebrations. Let us follow Pope Francis’s example in being humble, in being simple, and in rediscovering our basic core Catholic values.
James MacMillan is a leading composer. Musica Sacra Scotland, a new national advisory group for music and the liturgy in Scotland, is planning a one-day conference with helpful, practical workshops in November. Full details will be released nearer the time
Fr Z kudos to Mr. MacMillan
PS: The cartoon at the top features Michael Voris. More on that elsewhere.